This Was The Summer of Charter School Discontent

As summer gives way to Fall, it is worth taking note how shifts, both subtle and substantial, are changing the ground on which charter school advocates fight for more of our public education system.  This is not what they are used to.  Backed by billionaire financing, using that money to pull the Democratic Party towards education policies more typical of the Republican Party, calling in favors from elected officials who owe their donors, getting unfettered and poorly monitored largess from the federal government, permitted to engage in practices that would land any public school district in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and existing in a regulatory environment that is charitably described as “permissive,” charter schools and their advocates are used to owning the conversation…and pretty much getting their way.

Slowly — but possibly steadily — that is changing.

An early blow actually came last November when current Democratic Party nominee for President Hillary Clinton was campaigning and made an entirely factual observation about the charter school sector as a whole:

“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

There is literally nothing inaccurate about that observation.  Self selection helps charter schools in general with their student population, and many flatly rig their supposedly open lottery processes.  The attrition rates at many charter schools, especially ones that apply incredibly narrow disciplinary regimes to their students, are well established, and the enrollment and financial impacts of these practices on host districts are also well known.  Every observation she made in that comment was fundamentally true.

Which did not stop major charter school advocates from lamenting her statement.  The pro-charter and hedge fund backed group “Democrats” for Education Reform (DFER) immediately released a response saying, it was “highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.”  This is the same DFER that enthusiastically responded to Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement, but which apparently has problems with her suggesting that charter schools be held to the same standards as fully public schools and doesn’t want anyone noting how quickly many charter operators purge themselves of students with disabilities, with behavioral needs, or with second language learning needs.

Since then, Secretary Clinton seems to have tried a bit of a pivot, saving her most negative comments for so-called “for profit” charter schools, which, to be fair, are a general disaster zone of a sector.  However, as Peter Greene rightly noted in July, this is a distinction in desperate search of a difference.  An actual charter school can be a non-profit entity run by a for profit charter management organization (CMO).  A non-profit CMO can contract exclusively with for profit vendors that the CMO operators have a financial interest in.  Real estate plays abound in the charter school sector, and various investment arrangements allow guaranteed returns for large financial firms.  Operating as a not for profit also doesn’t stop charter school administrators from paying themselves extravagantly from the public money they receive.

In fact, these very issues were at the heart of a Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver.  The comedian and social critic was blistering.  While explicitly avoiding the debate over the existence of charters and carefully noting that he was looking at the problems associated with a poorly regulated sector taking public funds, Mr. Oliver looked at financial scandals and fraud in charter schools across the country:

This level of scrutiny has been sorely lacking over the quarter century of charter school growth and promotion, but Mr. Oliver was specific and devastating, looking at schools that suddenly shut down without warning, crooked financial arrangements, questionable charter school applications, and oversight laws allowing administrators to select their own non-profit organizations as the legal overseer of their owns charters.  Consider the quote in this screen shot warning parents in Philadelphia what to do before selecting a charter school:

philly

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

But the charter sector is still only in the denial stage of grieving, so, despite Mr. Oliver’s careful framing of his examination of fraud and mismanagement, the pro-charter Center for Center for Education Reform announced a $100,000 contest called “Hey, John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School!” I wish every public school district in the country had a spare hundred grand laying around for something like this.

The pro-charter camp also suffered set backs at the Democratic National Convention this summer when the education portion of the platform was amended with language explicitly supporting democratically governed public schools and making some actual demands of charter schools:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

It is hard to imagine anyone having a problem with this, so, of course, Shavar Jeffries of “Democrats” for Education Reform laced into the changes saying that the platform had been hijacked by the national teachers’ unions, and DFER tried, unsuccessfully, to block the language.  The lack of total obsequiousness from elected Democrats must have been very shocking to them.

However, the most difficult blow to absorb must have been from the NAACP. The venerable civil rights organization, sometimes an ally in education reform during the No Child Left Behind era, called for a general moratorium on privately managed charter schools – in effect, all of them.  The resolution cited the fact that charter boards accept public money but lack democratic accountability, that charter schools are contributing to increased segregation, that punitive disciplinary policies are disproportionately used in charter schools as well as other practices that violate students’ rights, that there is a pattern of fraud of mismanagement in the sector in general, and it then called for opposition to privatization of education, opposed diversion of funding from public schools, called for full funding for quality public education, called for legislation granting parents access to charter school boards and to strengthen oversight, called for charter schools to follow USDOJ and USDOE guidelines on student discipline and to help parents file complaints when those guidelines are violated, opposed efforts to weaken oversight, and called for a moratorium on charter school growth.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig defended the resolution, saying that education reformers have only offered top-down and privatized solutions and that choices can be community based.

Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University explained the importance of the resolution clearly:

Civil Rights workers were concerned first and foremost with the eradication of legal policies or structures like separate but equal that resulted in inequality. This mirrors the cornerstone of the NAACP’s current call for a moratorium on charter schools. They do not claim that all charters are bad, as some commentators have suggested, but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color. They expressed concern about the dearth of evidence proving their effectiveness and deplore the resulting segregation they often produce. Most importantly, they question the equity of diverting public funds to support private enterprises. As the NAACP rightly observed, “[Charter schools] do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.

I find it difficult to emphasize this enough. For more than a decade and half, education reformers – backed by powerful philanthropies and funded by PACs funneling dark money from billionaires – have attempted to co-opt the language of civil rights.  They have used the plight of children of color who attend schools that are deliberately segregated and criminally underfunded to justify, as Dr. Denisha Jones explains, privatizing schools, setting up “choice” systems where schools choose children, and offering barely trained, infinitely replaceable teachers for children of color.  The NAACP resolution calls for a full pause in that agenda and recognizes it as antithetical to civil rights.

Of course, reformers could not stay silent on the matter.  Secretary of Education and former charter school head Dr. John King chartersplained that there should not be any “artificial barriers” to charter schools calling them “drivers of opportunity.”  Various African American led school choice groups pushed back on the resolution as well.  Self-proclaimed “most trusted educator in America” Dr. Steve Perry took a blunter approach on social media, calling the NAACP platform “anti-Black”:

And former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham continued his efforts to use millions of dollars in seed money to build a “better conversation” by blaming the whole drubbing that charter schools have suffered this past summer on AFT President Randi Weingarten:

Mr. Cunningham is also referencing a suit in Washington state against the charter school sector that was working its way through the courts at the time – charters in Washington lost, with the state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s charter school law violated the state Constitution.

Of course, charter schools are in no danger of folding up shop and going away (although the faster that virtual charter schools which even charter advocates cannot defend just die already the better).  There are billions of dollars in public funds still up for grabs, and numerous ways to monetize public education.  Despite their complaints at hearing actual criticism, it is unlikely that charter schools would face an implacable foe in a Clinton administration as much as they’d face an ally telling them to behave better.  Charter school advocates are pouring money into a fight to convince Massachusetts voters that their already best in the nation school system needs unlimited charter schools — painting itself as a progressive cause when it is funded mostly by the same conservative groups – DFER, New Schools Venture Fund, billionaire donors – behind school privatization everywhere else.  They might win that one, but, for the moment, they are in unexpected territory and feeling defensive.

That’s long past due.

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Filed under politics, Funding, charter schools, DFER, Social Justice, Corruption, John King, Hillary Clinton

New Jersey <3's PARCC

Garden State teachers and students returned to school this month to find that both the state board of education and department of education have declared undying love and devotion to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  The decisions, made when presumably fewer people were looking, first enshrined the controversial assessments as the sole standardized exam accepted to meet graduation requirements for New Jersey high school students beginning in 2021, and for extra measure the state tripled the weight that those exams will play in teacher evaluations beginning this year.  It was a very busy summer for questionable examinations and discredited evaluations.

New Jersey has long required students to pass either a basic competency test or one of a range of tests used in the college application process in order to graduate, allowing students to assemble a portfolio of grades and other materials if an adequate test score is not recorded after attempting the exams.  This layered approach to a testing requirement made sense when applied to the entirety of the state.  After all, the requirement is to find a minimum level of competency required to graduate, so the logical option would be to give students different ways of demonstrating that competency and being certain that you are looking for what can be reasonably expected for students graduating from the state’s 586 school districts.  Moreover, it is a nod to simple reality:  high school students do not, as a whole, care a lot about proficiency exams administered as part of state accountability systems, although students with college ambitions have plenty of reasons to care about SAT, ACT, or advanced placement exams that carry actual personal consequences.  Washington D.C.’s Wilson High School saw this very phenomenon this year where students openly admitted that they skipped or ignored the PARCC exams to focus on advanced placement tests scheduled for the following week.

New Jersey will have none of that now.  By making PARCC the sole examination allowed for graduation, the state is telling all high school students they must take the state’s accountability exam seriously or face the possibility of not graduating.  It is also aiming directly at New Jersey’s Opt Out movement which, while not the same force across the Hudson in New York, still boasted tens of 1000s of students refusing PARCC with 15% of 11th graders refusing the exams in 2015.  That option will be vastly more problematic beginning in 2021, and parents who considered opting out in younger grades could easily be intimidated into not making that decision.  New Jersey’s rationale for making PARCC the sole manner for meeting graduation requirements seems aimed primarily at forcing reluctant students and families to take PARCC seriously.  As policy, this is a lot of stick with very little carrot.

It might also be illegal.  Sarah Blaine, an education activist, blogger, and attorney, wrote cogently back in May that the new regulations seem to contradict the law they intend to implement.  The state is required to administer a test for all students in 11th grade, and that test must “measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.”  Ms. Blaine notes that the 10th grade ELA test will not be given to all 11th graders statewide by definition.  Further, she correctly notes that the content in the Algebra I test is taken by many New Jersey students as early as junior high school, leaving them in the ridiculous position of securing their “minimum” competency in math before they have even enrolled in high school.

Ms. Blaine was also correct when she noted that the state testing requirement only allows the state to deny a diploma to a student who does not meet the minimum basic skills — and the PARCC exam is, by design, not a measure of those skills at the 4 and 5 cut score levels.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  whatever else PARCC aims to measure, it is obvious from both available content and the results themselves that it is not an examination of grade level basic competenceNew Jersey boasted some significant improvements from the 2015 PARCC administration in 2016 (some of which might be explained by increased participation); the percentage of students scoring 4 or 5 on the 10th grade ELA exam was 44.4% compared to 36.6% in 2015, and the percentage of students scoring that on the Algebra I exam was 41.2% compared to 35% in 2015.  These gains are significant but would still leave more than half of New Jersey high school students ineligible to graduate.  Commissioner Hespe claims “Those are areas we know we have work to do,” but given that PARCC in 2015 pretty closely matched New Jersey’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

…and given that NAEP proficiency levels are not meant to measure minimum grade level expectations, the Commissioner can promise to work all he wants…he’s working with an examination whose proficiency levels are looking for and labeling advanced students.  We can have a very fruitful and important conversation about the unequal distribution of students scoring at those levels and about the unequal distributions of educational opportunity in the state – but not while threatening to withhold high school diplomas simply because students are not getting straight As.

Increasing the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores from 10% to 30% was always a threat waiting in the wings, but it remains a giant blunder of an idea.  New Jersey decreased its Student Growth Percentile (SGP) component in deference to the newness of PARCC in the Garden State, but increased familiarity with the exam does not mean that the bulk of the evidence is in favor of using growth measures to evaluate teachers.  If you like the expression “arbitrary and capricious,” you will enjoy the next 3-5 years in New Jersey as the state tries to fend off lawsuits from teachers inappropriately labeled as ineffective due to SGPs and as it tries (and likely fails) to explain why SGPs that more effectively measure student characteristics than teacher effectiveness should be used in evaluating teachers.  Fans of legal briefs should be popping the popcorn sometime next Spring.

Predicting the future is not exactly easy.  New Jersey’s $108 million contract with Pearson to administer PARCC has two years left, by which time Governor Chris Christie will no longer be in Trenton.  For that matter, PARCC’s long term health is legitimately in question.  The consortium web site no longer boasts a map of states using the exam on its homepage because in 2011, they were able to boast of 25 participating states that “collectively educate more than 31 million public K-12 students in the United States, over 60% of all students enrolled in the nation’s public schools.”  In the 2015-2016 school year, they had “eight fully participating states” and now offer a “tiered approach” for non-participating states to access PARCC content.  I’m not taking bets on PARCC dying any time soon, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone place similar bets on it surviving either.

One prediction is pretty simple, however.  In New Jersey, PARCC will become a de facto curriculum and disrupt even more children’s education.  We have seen this over and over again in the No Child Left Behind era, and while the new federal education law grants states more flexibility on how they use accountability testing, New Jersey has chosen to double down on the test and punish policies of the past 15 years.  School children in New Jersey, especially those in struggling districts, will get less science, less social studies, less art and music, and our youngest children will get a lot less play – and far more test preparation.   The Class of 2021 will begin ninth grade algebra in a little less than a year, and a substantial percentage of those taking the course will find out that they do not qualify to graduate after only one year of high school and will scramble to repeat the exam (at whose expense?) or assemble other evidence of their “basic competence” for the Commissioner to review.  The state DOE will take certain districts to the wood shed for plummeting graduation rates, and various parent coalitions will sue over the use of a test that violates the letter and spirit of the law as a graduation requirement.  My bet for the next few years in New Jersey?

fasten-your-seatbelts-o

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Filed under Chris Christie, classrooms, Common Core, ESSA, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, standards, Testing, VAMs

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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Filed under classrooms, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

A Teacher’s Case For Hillary Clinton

I suppose I ought to front load this:  In the Democratic Party Primary in New York State, I voted for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  My reasons for the doing so were various, but they focused heavily upon how well Senator Sanders articulated what I consider to be a genuine crisis in our time: the out of control growth in income inequality and the consequent damage to opportunity and justice that comes with it.  Senator Sanders’ ability to make a genuinely competitive campaign outside of the system of large donor politics was also inspiring, and it pointed to another vital issue – how our campaign finance system grants large donors more access and more voice to the point of commanding far more attention than the voters.

In contrast, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging such issues, has spent the last quarter century at or near the very highest offices of political power in the country.  While I did not doubt that she recognizes these as problems, I did question her ability to give full critique to them while running a campaign that is fully enmeshed in big donor politics, especially when given the choice of Senator Sanders’ avoidance of typical large donors.  Further, as an advocate for public education and full-throated critic of the current reform environment, Secretary Clinton’s long standing connections to education reform was, and remains, a real difficulty for me.  Secretary Clinton has been supported by Eli Broad, whose education “philanthropy” has been consistently aimed at aggressively favoring charter schools over fully public schools.  Secretary Clinton’s PAC received a massive donation from Alice Walton, and the Clinton Foundation has been a financial beneficiary of the Walton Family Foundation whose education efforts are geared towards privatization and hostility to teachers’ unions.  “Democrats” for Education Reform, an organization founded largely by Whitney Tilson in a effort to convince Democrats to support anti-union and pro-privatization policies that are  more typical of Republicans, greeted Secretary Clinton’s campaign with enthusiasm.  Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair is John Podesta who is President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP).  CAP, while often progressive and innovative on a range of issue, is reliably on the wrong side of education reform. If there is a bad idea being proposed for our public schools, there is a good chance that CAP has written a position paper in support of it.

Suffice it to say that this has been at least a bit of a difficult journey.  In reality, finding American politicians who truly support – and understand – public education and its purposes is not actually easy.  Senator Sanders’ education record – beyond college financing – is not actually stellar considering missed opportunities to trim back today’s test and punish environment.  California Congressman Mark Takano is a former school teacher who has explained that most of his colleagues, however well-intentioned, have limited time to learn an issue as complex as teaching and learning and are readily swayed by ideas that fit their known areas of expertise such as law and finance.

So how have I come to support Secretary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency?

One thing to remember is that, despite my initial support for her opponent, I find a huge portion of the criticism hurled at Secretary Clinton either false or overblown.  The Clintons really have been the target of a now generation long effort to both defame them and to blow up every misstep into major scandal.  Despite her currently dismal poll numbers on trustworthiness, Secretary Clinton has been admirably honest in her campaign statements – this really isn’t even close in comparison to the Republican nominee.  Secretary Clinton has been endlessly accused of corruption, and while I agree that our big donor political system is rife with the corrupting influence of money, it is hardly fair to claim that Secretary Clinton is some extraordinary example.  This is a system of campaign finance that touches most elected officials at most levels of government.  60 Minutes did a story in April about how the need to raise campaign money is so important to remaining in Congress that Congressional Republicans had personal targets of raising $18,000 a day over a six month period.  While I desperately want this system to change, it is not fair to single out Secretary Clinton as some kind of avatar of political corruption merely for having been around for as long as she has.

While her long time associations and past positions have worried me, it is also true that Secretary Clinton has proven herself persuadable on key education issues.   Last Fall, she created a near panic among education reform advocates for saying something that is objectively true: many charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”  This is objectively true by any normal analysis, especially of the high flying “no excuses” schools who claim they “prove” that urban public schools are full of lazy teachers — even while they do everything they can to suspend students they do not want until they leave.  It is also fair to say that Secretary Clinton seems to be trying to have it at least one and a half ways on charter schools, making statements about high quality “public” charter schools and trying to thread a needle on the difference between “for profit” and “not for profit” charters.  These are attempts to dichotomize situations that are often much murkier.  For example, a charter school can be run by a “not for profit” management organization that then contracts services to companies that entirely for profit – and which have ties to the people running the not for profit.  Fraudulent use of public funds is a very real problem across the charter sector and unlikely to improve without strict public scrutiny that charter operators and their investors have mightily resisted.  Further, current school financing situations generally mean that charter schools, as a whole, operate at the expense of their host districts who find that their fully public schools have higher concentrations of the highest need students without accompanying increases in spending to help them succeed.

Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party, however, appear to be making some progress on the issue as evidence by subtle but meaningful changes in the platform.  The original platform language on charter schools was basically more of the same – equating them with fully public schools and insisting that parents have options while offering a relatively meaningless opposition to for profit charters and a weak call for transparency.  The new language inserted:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

This should not be controversial – unless you believe that it is a great thing for schools accepting public money to operate to the detriment of existing schools and to fail to retain their students.  The platform also addressed accountability and testing, adding language that called for testing to meet reliability and validity standards, opposing testing that unfairly labels vulnerable students as failing, using test data to redirect funds, close schools, and in teacher and principal evaluation, and it directly supported parents’ right to opt out of standardized tests “without penalty for the either the student or their school.”

Shavar Jeffries, head of “Democrats” for Education Reform, was not at all pleased.  His statement said the platform had been “hijacked” at the last minute and declared that the platform would harm the nation’s most valuable children.

You have to wonder about someone who thinks calling on charter schools to stop kicking out so many poor and minority children and not financially destabilize their host district and calling for testing to be used in ways that do not actually harm schools and teachers and children is a massive affront to progress.  The good news is that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole may have begun a slow and ponderous turn from failed policies of test and punish and letting charter schools do whatever they want.

Another issue for teachers to consider is the composition of the Supreme Court.  This term, the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the court’s five conservative justices were poised to issue a death blow to public sector unions and to rule that people who enjoy the protection of a union contract did not have to contribute money to the union if they do not join.  Such agency fees are a vital way for unions to still have enough revenue to represent all members even though they cannot mandate membership.  A decision against the CTA would have overturned decades of precedent and only the unexpected death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the anti-union ruling.  The composition of the Supreme Court should be on teachers’ minds not simply because of the Friedrichs case, but also because of Vergara v. State of California case which is working through appeals and which is inspiring copycat lawsuits financed by dark money.

Where they cannot win with elections and legislation, education “reformers” are trying to break the back of teacher unions and are trying to sue away teachers’ workplace rights in court.  The four justices appointed by President Bill Clinton and by President Obama voted against the most recent case to reach the court.  The four justices appointed by President Reagan and by both Presidents Bush voted in favor.  There is no reason to believe Secretary Clinton would appoint justices markedly different than those appointed by her Democratic predecessors.

Secretary Clinton should also get some recognition for her choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.  Many progressives that I know are not happy with the pick, citing that Senator Kaine has, at best, a mixed record on many issues of sincere importance.  On education, however, he was one of the most promising of Secretary Clinton’s potential running mates.  Simply put, among prominent Democrats, Senator Kaine is not a favorite of education “reformers”.  As Virginia’s governor, he was not a proponent of standardization, high stakes testing, and privatization – the grand trifecta of what passes for education reform today.   Further, Senator Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, is Virginia’s current Secretary of Education and in that position, she has worked to reform standardized testing in the Commonwealth, blaming it for making the achievement gap worse, and she has opposed charter school expansion.

Consider the other possibilities.  New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was reported to be a top contender, and as a rising star in the party, he certainly would have added quite a lot to Secretary Clinton’s ticket, especially with his prodigious political talent.  But he is also a horrible choice on education policy, supporting vouchers, privatization, merit pay, and high stakes accountability testing.  Frankly, I was holding my breath wondering if I could ever be pleased voting for Secretary Clinton in the general election, and while Senator Kaine may not be a fully progressive pick, his selection gives me confidence that on education issues, Secretary Clinton is listening to a much broader and more informed set of advisers than President Obama has.

The issue of listening is actually another reason to be hopeful of a Clinton Presidency on education.  Ezra Klein wrote a fascinating portrait of Secretary Clinton, one that discussed some of her flaws as well, that got to a central strength of her leadership style – listening.  Klein stated that this seemed almost too cliche for him at first, but person after person repeated the same observation:  Secretary Clinton not only listens to others, she does so with a sincere interest in understanding their point of view, and she saves notes and records from those conversations to use when it comes time to craft policy:

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

This is substantial, and it makes me consider the very strong possibility that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party’s “evolution” on issues like charter schools and high stakes testing may be more than cosmetic and that they might signal the beginning of a shift away from the era of testing and punishment and privatization.  President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten has long been a supporter of Secretary Clinton.  While some rank and file members of the AFT were critical of the union’s early endorsement and while I do know members who have questioned the union’s efforts to cooperate with education reformers in the past, two things are indisputable:  1) as evidence has come in, AFT has been more forceful on opposing policies such as value added measures in teacher evaluation; 2) President Weingarten had a substantial and sincere role in assisting a ground breaking study by the Badass Teachers Association on workplace issues for teachers.  This study gained major, unprecedented, response from AFT membership, and issues that it highlighted even made their way into the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed last year.  Given Secretary Clinton’s leadership style and given President Weingarten’s role in supporting her this year, it is entirely reasonable to hope that genuine shifts are beginning.

Of course, it is possible that I am entirely wrong.  I accept that.  President Obama certainly said many of the right things about testing and accountability in 2008, only to hurl our schools into even worse policies than those imposed by the Bush administration. The reality is that we are 30 years into a policy cycle premised on accountability rather than equity and 15 years into a policy cycle using high stakes testing as a bludgeon on schools.  The reform side of education today is backed by enormously powerful and enormously wealthy interests such as Rupert Murdoch who claimed in 2010 that education was a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting to be “transformed” by technology.  That’s a pile of potential profits that none of them will simply walk away from readily.  At their best, education reformers tend to be blind to the consequences of creatively disrupting a core democratic institution the way they disrupt wireless communication.  At their worst, they are outright fraudsters enriching themselves at the expense of equity and justice.

The consequence if I am wrong about Secretary Clinton on education is that we continue to argue with the Federal DOE and that we continue to lobby state by state for needed changes from punitive accountability and towards support and growth.  These are arguments that are gaining traction community by community, so if Secretary Clinton turns out to produce no substantive change in education policy, there is at least familiar, if exhausting, work ahead.  Certainly, education reformers have no intention of going anywhere regardless of federal education policy, so we’ll be in this for the long haul.

But what is the alternative in this election?

I have seen friends insist that others make a positive case to vote for Secretary Clinton without mentioning her opponent.  That is an entirely reasonable request, and I hope that I have made a positive, if heavily qualified, case on those grounds.  However, it is also impossible to ignore her opponent in this election.  Whatever flaws Secretary Clinton may or may not have, they are within the normal parameters of American politics.  Donald Trump is far beyond the bounds of acceptability, not merely because of his utter and total lack of qualifications for the job, not merely because of his horrendous temperament, not even because of his documented lies, racism, and sexism — but because he represents a genuine threat to our system of governance. President Trump guarantees a rolling series of Constitutional crises from the moment he is sworn into office.

Some public education voters may be swayed by his promise to get rid of the Common Core State Standards.  Among all of his empty promises, that is quite a whopper as he will possess literally no leverage to change that.  While the CCSS were pushed into place with federal incentives during Race to the Top, the states were the ones that ultimately adopted them in response to those incentives.  Does Mr. Trump propose a DOE grant program to convince states to repeal the standards now?  Actually, that power is pretty much gone as the Every Student Succeeds Act passed last year places extraordinary limits on the Department of Education’s ability to mandate or coerce states into adopting standards and academic content.  Whatever fighting is going to continue over the Common Core standards, it is entirely at the state level now.

What passes for education policy from the Trump campaign was in full view when his son, Donald Trump Jr., addressed the Republican National Convention and blasted our public schools, comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”  He touted school choice and the free market, and he further decried the Democrats as more concerned with “tenured teachers” than with children’s education.

If you really like Campbell Brown’s war on teachers, you will absolutely love the Trump Administration.

Donald Trump’s broader proposals will harm the children in our classrooms.  One of his most consistent proposals is to deport every single undocumented immigrant in the country, an idea that would require massive investments in extra police, extra police powers, mass detention facilities, and emergency courts.  Beyond the stark horror of trying to round up and deport many millions of people, the plan would inflict terrible hardship upon millions of our school children.  Approximately, 1.4% of school children in America are themselves undocumented immigrants, and in 2012, roughly 4.5 million children born in America, and therefore American citizens themselves, lived with at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant. Donald Trump would inflict unimaginable agony upon them.

American Muslims are only about 1% of our population, but they would take it harshly on the chin due to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.  Nearly two thirds of adult Muslims in America were born in another country, which means Muslim children in our schools are very likely to have relatives who live abroad — and who would be unable to even visit during a Trump administration.  In addition, Donald Trump continuously defames Muslims in America from falsely claiming that 1000s of Muslims cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center to claiming that Muslims in America “know what is going on and they don’t tell us,” blaming the entire Muslim community for the acts of a very few extremists.  Muslim school children face increasing cases of bias and acts of hate against them — can we imagine what will happen to those students in schools if Donald Trump is President using that bully pulpit to spread his lies and hate?

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech painted a picture of America spinning into chaos, terrorism, and violence.  While the facts do not support these claims at all, he used them to repeatedly claim that he will be a “law and order” President and that “safety will be restored.”  If this does not send chills down your spine, you need to investigate history and ask yourself if children of color in our schools will see “safety” or if they will see even more aggressive and even more antagonistic policing in their communities and in their schools.  Donald Trump’s platform is a manifest threat to millions upon millions of the children in our schools.

All of this is bad enough, but Donald Trump represents a different and even worse threat.  It is unfortunate that we have used the word “fascist” as a political epithet in recent decades largely to mean “I don’t like how conservative this politician is.”  The term has actual meaning and a set of core ideas and themes that are emblematic of actual fascism that is extremely hard to map onto typical American politics with any honesty.  But not this time.  While not “pure” fascism in the traditional sense, both Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and the overall agenda of his campaign hit a distressing number of fascist themes – call it American proto-fascism, but the fact remains that Donald Trump is a genuine threat to our system of governance.

In 1995, Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote an essay about what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism”.  Having witnessed the rise of Italian Fascism and being forced to participate in Fascist competitions about the glory of the state and Mussolini, Eco was well equipped to explain central themes of fascism that managed to endure even though they did not manifest as national political forces in Europe of the early 1990s.  Consider some of Eco’s themes of Eternal Fascism and how well they line up with Donald Trump’s speech accepting his nomination:

  • Cult of Tradition: Trump’s portrait of an America falling into violence and chaos was an inherent effort to call for a return to a traditional, nearly mythic, national order.  His signature theme of “Make America Great Again” inherently calls for a period of glory lost to our current generation.  Trumpism sees no advancement except in a return to a mythologized past.
  • Rejection of Modernism: Nearly everything about the world we have made since the end of WWII seems a threat to Trump.  Modern economics.  International agreements. Inclusive immigration policies.  He does not propose reforming them. They are all rejected in favor of a retreat to isolation and protection.
  • Cult of Action for Action’s Sake: Throughout this campaign, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that we must “do something” about all of the problems he claims we have.  He does not have a real plan because that is not the point — we must act and must act now.  Trump’s own son, himself the product of elite private schools and universities, declared his disdain for the educated elite and proclaimed that he and his siblings learned from those with “PhDs in common sense,” indicting expertise in favor of blunt action.
  • Fear of Difference: Trump has thrived on seeking to make his supporters afraid:  undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists; Muslim immigrants and visitors are potential terrorists; Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs seeking to murder the police and overthrow order.  His support is hugely based upon stoking these fears.
  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class: Unlike progressive politics which identifies economic hardships and proposes policy fixes, Trump identifies those same hardships and uses them to whip up more anxiety and resentment and a belief among followers that their rightful place in the economic order has been stolen from them, leading to…
  • Obsession With A Plot: Again, Trump thrives on the resentments of his followers and directs their fear and sense of humiliation towards others who have victimized them.  Again, this should not be mistaken with progressive politics that seeks to address economic insecurity through policy.  In Trump’s speech and campaign, the fault is that others, immigrants, Muslims, minorities,  foreign governments are existential threats to his followers and must be removed or controlled or beaten.
  • Humiliation from Enemies: Consider the typical Trump tack on trade — everyone cheats the United States and gets rich at our expense. In the world according to Trump most of our supposed allies take advantage of us and laugh at us while our adversaries do not respect us and cheat us.
  • Life Is Permanent Warfare: Trump promises swift military action against certain enemies, even to the point of committing overt war crimes, but the themes of war are evident in his constant talk of winning and losing.  To Donald Trump, all of our problems are summed up by how we “do not win anymore” because there are only two possibilities – victory or defeat.  This gives Trumpism another theme of Eternal Fascism:
  • Contempt for Weakness: Whether he is mocking the disabled or proclaiming that “only he” can fix our problems, Donald Trump oozes contempt for anyone he sees as weak and viciously attacks on that front.
  • Everyone Educated to Be a Hero:  Trump promises us that we will “win” as a nation and all of us will prosper as a result. Eco links the Fascist impulse to herorism to a willingness, even a desire, to die which seems absent from Trumpism as of yet, but his appeal to our desire to heroic victory is present.
  • Machismo: Heroic death may be elusive, but macho strutting and bragging is readily available to the Ur-Fascist.  Donald Trump’s hyper-machismo is on full display with its attendant sexism and disdain for women.  This is perhaps one of his most reliable personality traits from his personal life to his business career to his current career in politics.
  • Selective Populism: Fascism requires that individuals give up their individuality for a Common Will.  This is not entirely present in Trumpism as it is still wedded to more typical American conservative ideals of individualism, but in his acceptance speech, Trump openly declared “I am your Voice” and said of our problems that “I alone can fix them.”  Trump has openly proclaimed himself the legitimate voice of his aggrieved and furious followers.
  • Opposition to Corrupt Parliamentary Governments:  Trump does not openly advocate the replacement of our Constitutional system of government (assuming, of course, that he remotely understands it), but his contempt for that government is evident.  He repeats endlessly that are leaders are “not very smart” and that his skills are essential to save us.
  • Use of Newspeak: Trump does not yet have a unique form of speech replacing common language, but Fascist regimes typically use diminished syntax and poor vocabulary that requires little reasoning.  That stands on its own as a description of Trump’s speeches to date.

None of this means that Donald Trump intends to replace the United States’ political order with a fascist regime.  To begin with, he does not possess the paramilitary force that historic fascist leaders surrounded themselves with before ascending to power.  Second, he is seeking the Presidency through our existing political structure even as he derides it constantly.  However, it does point to a truly unique danger of a potential Trump Presidency: he holds views of power, authority, and the social and political order that are antithetical to our system of shared power among equal branches of government.  Consider a President Trump ordering our INS and border guard to begin building massive detention centers and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants. Now picture him being ordered to stop by a federal judge.  Will he stop?  Will he recognize the judiciary’s authority over the executive branch?  Or will he lash out at the judge and simply proceed?  What then?  Does the court hold him in contempt?  Would Congress impeach him under those circumstances?  What happens when he makes good on a promise of ordering the military to violate international and military law?  Do the Joint Chiefs resign en masse?  Does he go through every general and admiral until he finds someone willing to commit a war crime?

Perhaps our Constitutional system would be strong enough to remove him from office.  Perhaps not.  As a nation, our political order has not faced a threat like this since General Beauregard ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Trump is a potential sledge hammer to America’s Constitutional system, a system for which he displays no knowledge and no regard, and to which his views of both his power and of his governing mandate are entirely antithetical.  Donald Trump portrays himself as the avenging voice of an aggrieved and humiliated population on whose behalf he will remove parasitic outsiders and force all of our enemies to “lose” as we “win” under his leadership.  This is a candidate who promises to smash all norms for rhetoric, policy, and respects for the roles of our institutional limits on the Presidency.  He may not seek to be an actual dictator, but he threatens to stretch our system to the very breaking point.

As teachers, we should be horrified by this.  Our system of Common Schools was established in no small part to promote democratic values and to contribute to the health of our civic sector.  Public schools are working instantiations of the ideal that a healthy civic order provides for the education of all and through that education promotes the wise and beneficial exercise of the franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

– Horace Mann, 1848

Over time, we have seen our schools become the very places were advancement in inclusiveness and expansion of the franchise have played out, but this has required working branches of government: executive offices, legislatures, courts responding to the needs of the day and the petitions of people seeking justice.  A Presidency that threatens to damage those institutions and their balance will inevitably damage our schools as the system that supports them is thrown into uncertainty.

Some may read this and accuse me of trying to frighten teachers into a particular vote.  I will gladly own that accusation, for the prospect of Donald Trump assuming the Presidency is truly frightening.  I do not merely believe he must lose this election; I believe he must lose by a margin that thoroughly repudiates his worldview.

I understand that after the past 15 years, it is very hard for many teachers to support a Democrat for President who has been an ally of many in modern education “reform”.  I also accept that the observations I have made in favor of Secretary Clinton may be unpersuasive for many teachers and for good reasons.  I also hope very sincerely that everyone sees what is truly at stake in this election.  If I am correct that Secretary Clinton is beginning a slow pivot on public education, then her administration offers a chance for education policy to, slowly, move towards support and growth instead of test and punish.  If I am wrong about that, then we continue our familiar advocacy on familiar ground.  It will be painful, and it will lead to more harm of schools and children.  But if Donald Trump is President, it is a certainty that millions more of our students will be caught up in his racist and xenophobic policies, and the very political institutions that sustain public education face serious peril.  On election day, I will vote for the hope of a wiser set of education policies from a candidate who has a genuine gift for listening, and I will vote to repudiate what her opponent represents.

 

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Hillary Clinton, NCLB, politics, racism, Unions

Chris Christie – Reverse Robin Hood

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been an abject disaster for his state’s students, teachers, and schools.  Since assuming office in 2010, the self acclaimed teller of “like it is” has broken promise after promise, callously tossed the Garden State’s most vulnerable children into barely regulated experiments, and heaped insult after insult upon the state’s teachers.  A good way to approach almost any education proposal from Chris Christie is to simply assume that it will cause far more harm than good and then try to gauge just how far along the harmful spectrum it will actually be.

Chris Christie ran for Governor, promising teachers that he would not touch a dime of their pensions, but one of his first acts was to ram through a pension reform plan that he subsequently failed to fund – even while handing management of the fund over to Wall Street firms who raised annual fees from $140 million a year to $600 million a year and then planned to give $100 million of the fund to a firm started by a major donor to the Republican Governors’ Association right around the time the RGA was spending almost 2 million helping Christie get reelected.  Governor Christie’s refusal to meet funding obligations is not restricted to the state pension fund.  Governor Christie cut nearly $1 billion from the state school aid budget when he entered office, and that shortfall has never been made up for regardless of the district.  In fact, as Chris Christie was announcing his candidacy for the President of the United States, his own Department of Education reported that the state budget was roughly a billion dollars short of the fair funding formula used to determine school aid.

Chris Christie is more than happy to unleash chaos and mismanagement on poor children of color in New Jersey just so long as his favorite charter school operators stand to benefit.  With the aid of then Newark Mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker, the disastrous “One Newark” plan was foisted onto the state’s largest district  overseen by the incompetent and out of touch Cami Anderson – who was so standoffish and incapable of dealing with criticism that she even ignored lawmakers’ requests for meetings for an entire year.  Anderson was finally ousted but replaced by former state commissioner Chris Cerf who is cut of almost entirely similar cloth but who knows how to smile in public better.  Chris Christie pivots on other education issues with big public pronouncements that look like 180 degree changes – but which amount to almost nothing of substance.  While the governor likes to brag that he is “changing” the Common Core Standards in response to criticisms, his department of education continues its slow march towards making the enormously flawed PARCC assessment a graduation requirement in the Garden State.

And, of course, Chris Christie’s famous temper has led him to lash out in the press and directly in the faces of constituents over and over again. This is a man who claimed teachers used students as “drug mules” for a civics lesson.  This is a man who whined that the teacher union said he hated children for a simple billboard that said nothing of the sort:

NJEA billboard 2011

This is a man who has screamed at multiple teachers in public:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

And who has disparaged teachers’ work as not full time.

Given this history, it should give readers some pause that Governor Christie’s address on school funding in Hillsborough on June 21st was a new low even by his standards.  Under this “plan” the city of Newark, whose median household income is $34,012 a year, where 29.9% of the population lives below the federal poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $229,600, would see its annual school aid drop by 69%.  Meanwhile, Summit, a community whose median household income is $121,509, where 5% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $774,800, would see its annual school aid go up by 1506%.  The Governor would accomplish this by completely eliminating the school fair funding formula and then distributing $6,599 in per pupil aid to every school district in the state regardless of the community’s poverty or property value characteristics.  When Governor Christie watches “Robin Hood” he must see the Sheriff of Nottingham as nothing more than a misunderstood public servant making certain no ne’er-do-well layabouts get any of Prince John’s precious taxes:

sheriff-stealing

Getting every last cent out of the lazy good-for-nothings

A very brief background is in order:  New Jersey’s fair funding plan is actually one of the bright spots for equity in the Garden State’s education system.  New Jersey’s Abbott Districts are the result of decades of legislation and litigation, and the designation of an Abbott District takes into account matters such as educational adequacy, concentration of poverty, and the use of additional funding as a remedy.  The result of this has been New Jersey’s fair funding plan (the very one that Governor Christie has consistently underfunded) which directs substantial amounts of state aid to the most disadvantaged school districts throughout New Jersey.  Currently, there are 31 such districts in the state, and their current foundational aid from the state reflects the provisions of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  As recently as 2012, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to fully fund the SFRA, noting that consistent underfunding of the aid formula is “a real substantial and consequential blow” to students’ rights to a “thorough and efficient education.”

Governor Christie is apparently sick and tired of that.

In his speech, he pointed out that of the $9.1 billion spent annually on school aid, 58% of it goes to the Abbott Districts.  He decried this as “absurd” and “unfair.”  He claimed that school results from those districts prove that the Supreme Court was wrong to conclude that funding matters in urban education.  He provided cherry picked statistics on government spending in a few districts as “proof” that those communities can make up their school spending by trimming waste.  He blamed all of this for holding property taxes at high levels across the state.  He then proposed taking the entire $9.1 billion pot of (still inadequately funded) school aid and dividing it equally among every student in the Garden State:

If we were to take the amount of aid we send directly to the school districts today (in excess of $9.1 billion) and send it equally to every K-12 student in New Jersey, each student would receive $6,599 from the State of New Jersey and its taxpayers.  Every child has potential.  Every child has goals.  Every child has dreams.  No child’s dreams are less worthy than any others.  No child deserves less funding from the state’s taxpayers.  That goal must be reached, especially after watching the last 30 years of failed governmental engineering which has failed families in the 31 SDA districts and taxpayers all across New Jersey.

Not only does the Governor’s proposal literally take foundational aid that is mandated by law and litigation to go to the state’s poorest communities and direct it back to communities that are vastly wealthier, it also uses that redirection to promise middle class, upper middle class, and rich communities property tax relief – a campaign promise the Governor has not managed to manifest in his six years office:

In Margate, they would receive 428% more in aid.  In Fairlawn, 815% more in aid. In that town, when combined with our 2% property tax cap, this new aid would result in average drop in their school property tax of over 2,200 per household.  In Teaneck, 389% more in aid and an average drop in property taxes of nearly $1,600.  In Wood-Ridge, an 801% increase in aid and a drop in property taxes of over $1,800.  How about South Jersey?  In Cherry Hill, an increase in aid of 411% and a drop in property taxes of over $1,700.  In Haddonfield, an increase in aid of 1705% and a drop in property taxes of nearly $3,600.

The pattern is repeated everywhere.  South Orange aid up 912%, taxes down over $3,700. In Readington Township, aid up 410%, taxes down nearly $2,000. In Robbinsville, aid up 666%, taxes down over $2,600.  In Freehold Township, aid up 153%, taxes down over $1,500. In Chatham Township, aid up 1271%, taxes down $3,800.  In Wayne, aid up 1181%, taxes down over $2,100.  All over the state, we slay the dragon of property taxes by implementing the Fairness Formula.  For the first time in anyone’s memory, property taxes plummeting not rising.  And all through valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to underfund the state aid formula for your entire tenure as governor, to unleash chaos and mismanagement on the largest Abbott Districts that are under state control and whose problems are entire on your head, to thoroughly fail to deliver on property tax relief in the state as a whole, and then to turn around to your constituents burdened with high taxes and blame it on failures of schools in 31 communities, some of which are among the poorest and most distressed in the entire country.  Newark families whose schools have had dangerous lead levels in them since at least 2010?  We’re cutting your aid almost 70% so we can give it to families that earn 400% of your income and give them a property tax cut to boot!  Go find the money to make up for that in the couch cushions at city hall.

At least we now know that Governor Christie’s vacant stare behind Donald Trump in March wasn’t because he was being taken hostage – it was because he was trying to think of the most vile and damaging thing he could do to New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.

Let’s be clear:  The SFRA does not send vastly more aid to the Abbott Districts because it isn’t “valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.”  That is absurd and offensive.  It does so because the intent is for the funding to be a remedy in recognition that it does not cost the same to educate each individual child and that certain districts with specific characteristics have expenses that other districts do not.  A school that needs additional security measures because children have to travel through high crime areas on their way to school has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that has a high percentage of English Language Learners who need specialized instruction has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that has a high percentage of students with high need Individualized Education Plans has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that has special instructional programs for students whose families lack material and supplemental resources such as books and private tutoring has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that provides wrap around services such as social workers and health services has higher per pupil costs than one that does.  This is because, despite the governor’s willful misrepresentation of the issue, the SFRA is designed to account for equity so that students who begin their education with vastly less than wealthier peers have a fair shot.

Can everyone enjoy this?

The Difference Between Equality and Equity

Governor Christie further tried to obfuscate the issue by claiming that the Abbott District schools could do far better with much less state aid because the only schools that he ever speaks highly of, urban, no excuses, charter schools have higher graduation rates and test scores with fewer per pupil expenditures.  This is misleading on several front.  First, some charter school costs are actually paid for by their host districts, so the charter schools cannot properly claim they get less money when the host district carries what would normally be part of their per pupil costs.  Look at the third question on this page: New Jersey requires host districts to pay for the transportation of charter school students.  Second, we know full well that the high flying, test score achieving, charter schools beloved by Governor Christie simply do not have the same students as their district hosts, enrolling fewer students who are poor and fewer students with high need disabilities.  Further, their attrition rates are so high (as high as 60% for African American boys attending North Star Academy) that they entirely depend upon district schools to take back the students they refuse to accommodate.  Those Abbott District public schools that Governor Christie wants to function on less than half of their current state aid?  Their EXISTENCE enables his favorite charter schools to suspend the dickens out of their students until the ones they don’t want leave.

Finally, while these charter schools might spend less per pupil than some of their host districts, how they spend less is instructive. For example, in Newark, the public school district as a whole spends $3,963 per pupil more on “student services” than the charter sector in Newark. Such services include social work, attendance support, health, guidance, special education services, etc. and since NPS enrolls far more special education students – and vastly more high cost special education students – than Newark charters, this is entirely predictable and proper.  Meanwhile, although Newark’s charters spend significantly less on student services, they do manage to spend far more than NPS on administrative costs, especially administrative salaries – $2,460 per pupil compared to NPS’ $1,362 per pupil.

So what lessons can New Jersey most impoverished school communities learn from Governor Christie’s favorite schools in the state about “doing more with less”?  Drive away half of your students via massive suspension, don’t spend money on things like services that your most needy students require, and double your spending on administrative salaries?  Of course, if every school followed that model, we’d have no place for all of the kids that we refuse to educate.  Maybe Delaware will take them.

Governor Christie plans to spend the remainder of his term – at least when he isn’t playing chief errand boy for “Cheeto Jesus” – pursuing this agenda with the apparent hopes that he can entice New Jersey’s wealthy suburbanites to literally throw the state’s poorest children under the school bus.   He’s even given it hashtags: #FairnessFormula and #EquityforNJFamilies (which is deranged since this is the OPPOSITE of equity).  The good news is that New Jersey is not Kansas, and Democratic lawmakers do not sound willing to accommodate the Governor’s last ditch efforts to utterly destroy urban schools for the sake of finally keeping his broken promises on property taxes.

But just let this be known as exactly what Governor Chris Christie stands for.

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Filed under charter schools, Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Funding, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, politics, schools, Social Justice

Eva Moskowitz Cancelled Her Own Pre-K

Eva Moskowitz, the founder and head of the Success Academy charter school network has control issues.  In many aspects of life, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Steve Jobs was famously involved in the many details of design and development of Apple’s products, arguably responsible for the level of innovation that drove an entire industry.  The private sector, in fact, is often lead by people who are extraordinarily demanding of themselves and of everyone in their organizations — which may well drive people close to them nuts but which gets results for consumers and investors.

That’s not remotely the best way for public education to operate.

To be sure, schools and school systems need involved, high energy, and dynamic leaders.  But they also need leaders who understand and can navigate the complex system of loosely coupled and interlocking stakeholders who have legitimate say in how schools operate.  They need to respond respectfully and thoughtfully to potentially contradictory demands and navigate an optimal course forward.  School leaders need to understand and accept accountability to the tax payers whose money from local, state, and federal revenues fund the system.  “My way or the highway”ism might be functional for some aspects of entrepreneurship in certain visionary companies — it is absolutely awful in public education.

Ms. Moskowitz exerts extremely tight and thorough control over the operation of Success Academy, and she is extremely zealous in her insistence that nobody other than the State University of New York charter authorizer has any say whatsoever.  In fact, Ms. Moskowitz has been to court multiple times to prevent that New York State Comptroller’s office from auditing her books — which are full of taxpayers’ money that the Comptroller is supposed to monitor.  Charter school laws do free up the sector from a great many of the labor and education rules that govern our fully public schools, but Ms. Moskowitz has been singular in her insistence that no governmental authority can so much as examine her books.

So it was hardly surprising that when the New York City received money from the state of New York to open free public pre-Kindergarten programs, Ms. Moskowitz wanted a share of that money to support the program at her schools.  It was also not surprising that she immediately refused to sign the contract that the city required of all pre-K providers – including other charter school networks – that got money.  The city insisted that the contract to provide some oversight of pre-K programs was required to fulfill its obligations under the state grant that provided the funds in the first place. Ms. Moskowitz insisted that didn’t matter.  In this March Op-Ed announcing that Success Academy was suing the city for the pre-K money without the contract, Ms. Moskowitz makes it crystal clear that she believes charter schools cannot be made to answer to any state or city authority other than SUNY.

Ms. Moskowitz’s argument here involves some sleight of hand.  Yes, charter schools were granted legal permission to operate pre-K programs.  However, as Jersey Jazzman notes very cogently, this particular money was coming from the New York City DOE which made a proposal to the state for pre-K funds that required the city to engage in oversight of the program including making certain that all applicable federal and state laws and regulations were followed.  Ms. Moskowitz filed suit against the city because the city refused to violate its own agreement with the state when it applied for the universal pre-K funding in the first place. Further, again as noted by Jersey Jazzman, the law that Ms. Moskowitz insists grants her the ability to run a pre-K requires a school district to seek participants including charter schools, but it also allows the district to deny organizations inclusion in its application and allows those organizations to apply individually for funds.

Simply put:  Success Academy did not want to apply for pre-K funding on its own, AND they did want to be held to the same rules as every other pre-K provider included in New York City’s application to the state.

Neither the state nor the city decided to budge on the matter, and with a lawsuit still in process, Success Academy announced last week that they were cancelling all of their pre-K programs.  In typical Success Academy fashion, Ms. Moskowitz declared that the state and city were putting “politics” ahead of education, said the mayor had a “war” against her schools, and lamented that the courts would not “rescue” the pre-K classes.

analog volume meter

 

Cancelling their pre-K has absolutely nothing to do with Success Academy’s financial need. The money at stake was around $720,000, and while that is not chicken scratch, Success Academy could put together that sum easily.  This is an organization that can put together a $9 million fundraiser for a single night’s event.  This is an organization that spent more than $700,000 in a single day for a rally in Albany (including almost $72,000 for beanies) and which expected $39 million in philanthropic money for fiscal year 2016 – BEFORE the announcement of a $25 million dollar gift from billionaire Julian Robertson.  This is also an organization that is entirely capable of applying for pre-K funds from the state directly, and while it is not guaranteed that their application would be approved, given Success Academy’s extremely powerful and politically influential circle of close friends, I have little doubt they’d get money.

Success Academy could have very well “rescued” its own pre-K program by calling up any of its billionaire patrons, by submitting their own application to the state, or by signing the city’s agreement with the state for the money under city control.  But Eva Moskowitz wanted none of that because this isn’t about Success Academy’s pre-K classes or the very young children she is using as props.  This is about Eva Moskowitz being able to plant her flag on any available pot of public funding and demand that she be given it with no oversight or accountability whatsoever.  This is about control, plain and simple.  Control of public funds.  Control of the process that distributes them.  Control of the politicians and agencies that are entrusted to oversee them.  Ms. Moskowitz saw available funding to expand Success Academy’s footprint, and she was given every fair opportunity to access it either with or without city oversight.

She wanted to dictate the terms of how that money got to her schools.  The only one who cancelled Success Academy’s pre-K program is Eva Moskowitz and her demand for control.

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, politics, Success Academy

The Truthiness of Campbell Brown

Former news anchor turned education reform advocate Campbell Brown has established herself as one of the more aggressive public personalities arguing against teacher unions and in favor of school privatization.  After leaving CNN in 2010, Ms. Brown reemerged as an antagonist of teacher unions, taking to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to accuse New York City’s United Federation of Teachers of protecting teachers accused of sexual misconduct.  It was a devastating line of attack against a favorite target of would be education reformers – a well-funded and politically connected labor union favoring its membership over ethics.

Of course, it wasn’t really true.  Curiously, Ms. Brown seemed entirely unaware of the actual requirements in the UFT contact in effect at the time of her accusations.  This information was made crystal clear when Ms. Brown tried to publicly back UFT President Michael Mulgrew into a corner on the issue – and got seriously dressed down for her misrepresentation of the union’s position and actions:

Mr. Mulgrew: “We have made sure that on an allegation, a single allegation, a teacher must be removed.  If the principal wants the teacher removed, or the administrator, they must be removed from any contact with children. They then have a 30 day investigation period. If they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety, any sexual impropriety, the administrating officer has no choice but to fire him. And those are the things that we put into our contract – that they must be fired if they are found guilty of any sexual impropriety. So I know you like to say things in certain ways, but I have found many of your allegations to be misleading.  So I am very proud of the fact that we take very seriously that on a single allegation – a child can say it in a flippant moment — that that teacher will be removed from any contact with a student, and if they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety – any – there is no discretion: they must be fired.  And that is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown: “So to clarify…”

Mr. Mulgrew: “That is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown also came under fire for failing to disclose, as is typical in ethical journalism, her family connections to education reform and, specifically, anti-union education reform.  Her husband is Dan Senor, who was a figure in the Bush administration serving as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and at the time of Ms. Brown’s relaunching of herself as an education advocate, he was an adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign and a board member of Students First, New York – the Empire State branch of Michelle Rhee’s anti-union organization.  Ms. Brown decided her best reply was to be snarky about the entire question of ethical journalism.

Ms. Brown returned to bring Vergara vs. The State of California style lawsuits against teacher tenure in New York and other locales, funneling dark money donations into her new organization “Partners for Educational Justice”.  The new campaign came with a fresh round of publicity and interviews where she tried to make her case to the public.  These were, charitably, as fact challenged as her previous efforts to paint the UFT as an organization dedicated to protecting sexual predators.  According the Michigan State University education professor Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Ms. Brown was wrong on almost every relevant point of fact, misrepresenting the staffing challenges faced by urban school districts (they have trouble retaining experienced teachers rather than being plagued by incompetent ones with tenure), arguing that teachers must be bad in urban districts because standardized test scores are low (in reality, teachers are important but no research solidly ties quality of teaching to standardized test results), and citing wildly out of date information on how long it takes to remove a tenured teacher from the classroom (177 days is not 830 days no matter how often that talking point is repeated).

Shortly after launching her lawsuit, Ms. Brown also started her education “news” website called the “The74,” which oddly sounds like a nightclub but is supposed to “represent” the roughly 74 million Americans under the age of 18 in the country.  The website is expected to operate on a budget of $4 million annually, and is funded by donors such as  Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and Jonathan Sackler who serves on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund — all reliable sources of charter school support.  From that platform, she has been billing herself as a viable host for education issues in the current election cycle, hosting a Republican candidate discussion in August last year – and blaming the national teacher unions for the fact that no Democratic candidates agreed to appear at a similar forum later in the Fall.  Jersey Jazzman demonstrated the long list of entirely viable reasons why Democrats might not want to participate in what would obviously have been an anti-union, pro-privatization event hosted by a media figure whose relationship with facts has been sketchy.  But blaming unions is sort of a reflex for Ms. Brown by now.

Most recently, Ms. Brown took to  Slate with a video giving “advice” for the next President of the United States.  In it, she said that two thirds of American eighth graders “cannot read or do math at grade level.”  In response, Tom Loveless, an expert on student achievement and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, demonstrated that her facts were inaccurate in an exchange on Twitter:

Former Principal and current head of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris, explained the depth of Ms. Brown’s error in The Washington Post.  During the exchange on Twitter, Ms. Brown admitted that her “source” for the claim about American students’ grade level skills came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) where, yes, roughly one third of American 8th graders meet the cut scores for “proficient” and “advanced” with two thirds at “basic” or  below.  As Burris notes, NAEP does not consider “proficient” to be synonymous with “grade level” skills and expectations.  In fact, if you read the description of “basic” performance in the 8th grade reading NAEP, you will see a description of competent if not outstanding reading ability:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts. They should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text. Students performing at this level should also be able to state judgments and give some support about content and presentation of content.

To set up the NAEP proficiency as an appropriate grade level benchmark as Ms. Brown does is to entirely muddy the discussion and debate about how our schools are doing.  Such sleight of hand techniques seem deliberate and designed to paint a misleading portrait of our schools for reasons that have little to do with improving them for most children.  Regardless of motives, one thing is completely clear: anyone trying to portray NAEP results – or PARCC and SBAC results for that matter – as an established proxy for what grade level expectations should be in our schools is either seriously misinformed or a liar.

Carol Burris spoke very cogently about why this matters beyond the question of truthfulness as well:

If you set an unreasonable cut score on state tests and pressure teachers and kids to meet it, it can work against student learning, especially for students who struggle.  Sizeable numbers of kids will learn less than they might if the instructional pace and content were developmentally appropriate and well sequenced.  This is especially true in the younger grades. You can always differentiate instruction if you need to for the kids who excel, but if you hold struggling learners to a standard they cannot meet, frustration, not learning, happens.  Inappropriately difficult standards also promote drilling for the test, adult cheating and the narrowing of the curriculum as explained in this Politico New York report on the test-driven, Success Academy Charter Schools.

Despite the important arguments and issues of genuine substance, Ms. Brown seems determined to not learn about the education policies she has inserted herself into as both an advocate and an arbitrator. Given an opportunity to respond directly on her statements about student achievement, Ms. Brown offered perhaps the most childish and taunting string of non-sequiturs I have seen since I last taught 7th grade.  She called the reaction to her use of “grade level” “histrionic,” misused the expression “begs the question,” taunted “is that all you’ve got?”to her critics, declared that public education advocates have “lost” on charter schools, tenure, and “special protections” for abusive teachers,  and said the reaction “screams desperation.”  She declared that any “reasonable person or parent” knew what she meant by her statement.  She declared that she was subject to personal sexist attacks.  She claimed critics were “feigning outrage” over her misuse of terminology and facts because they “profit off the system’s failure.”  And for good measure, she compared New York University Professor Diane Ravitch with Donald Trump.

And your mother, I guess.

Ms. Brown’s self assurance is a bit odd here.  The charter sector may be growing, but so is awareness of the scandals growing from scant oversight of finances and practices.  Anti-union forces may have won the first round of Vergara v. California trying to sue tenure out of existence, but they lost the appeal.  Ms. Brown’s comment about “special protections you want for abusive teachers” is literally just blather since she didn’t have her facts correct when she started the argument.

More interesting, however, is the complete absence of an actual argument.  Ms. Brown grudgingly acknowledges that her specific language was incorrect, but she denies that anyone was really impacted at all by it.  Mostly, she just insinuates that her critics are losers and complains about the tone of their comments to her.  To be sure, she has received some personal, even heated, criticism in the course of these debates (although before equating Dr. Diane Ravitch’s occasional criticisms of her to what Donald Trump unleashes on his critics, she might want to consult the record).   These issues, however, are of national importance, and Ms. Brown has a repeated and enthusiastic habit of getting critical facts dead wrong on issues that impact 3 million professional teachers and their 50 million students.  From her assertion that the UFT happily protects child molesters to her statements about tenure to her claims about the percentage of American children reading and doing math at grade level, she is consistently and damagingly wrong.

Perhaps the actual facts are inconvenient for her cause, but smug snarkiness when called out for substituting “truthiness” for truth is hardly an argument.

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Filed under Media, politics, Unions

The Price of “Success”

At the end of 2014, the rapidly expanding Success Academy charter school network in New York City announced they would hire an in house ethnographer.  At the time, the network had 9,400 students in grades K-9 across 32 schools and had plans for further expansion.  The job description for the opening read:

“We want to expand the scope and quality of our data collection to focus on the lived experience within our schools,” the description reads, adding that the position would help the network focus on “questions we’ve never thought to ask.”

At the time, seeking a genuine social scientist to truly study the network gained high praise from representatives of the charter sector in public education such as Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who said the move was unique among charter schools across the nation.

The post was filled by Dr. Roy Germano who got to work in early 2015, examining the culture of Success Academy and seeking potential research questions to help the network focus, as they said, on things they’d “never thought to ask.”  Dr. Germano’s early work appeared to center on the high pressure and test-score centered professional culture of the charter school network, and the potential consequences that might have for teacher and administrator behavior.  According to documents that were obtained by PoliticoNewYork, Dr. Germano used his early investigations to write a proposal for a study of possible cheating by teachers within the network in response to the organization’s incentive structure.  Dr. Germano had no conclusive proof of cheating, but his interest stemmed from various examples teachers explained to him in interviews of colleagues correcting student work or suggesting that they “rethink” their answers, and to parallels he drew between Success’ high stakes environment and the Atlanta Public Schools where widespread cheating on standardized examinations eventually surfaced.  Dr. Germano further noted that “there are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”

The research proposal and reasons for the concern rocked the higher administration at Success Academy to its core, and immediately resulted in a top to bottom self examination of incentives and practices that might negatively impact teaching and learning within the network.  Principals were directed to give Dr. Germano full access to faculty and students and to begin a careful process of reviewing how they support teachers in fostering genuine student learning where high test scores are the outcome of an ethical and deeply enriched school environment.  The reward and career advancement structure at the network was immediately scrutinized to determine what changes could be made to be absolutely sure that rewards and bonuses do not incentivize questionable practices, and the policy of publicly stack ranking teachers based on student test scores came under question as well.  Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz recently announced that she is “eagerly awaiting” the results of Dr. Germano’s research and learning what the network can do to continuously improve.

Ha, ha – just kidding.  She totally banned him from the schools, fired him, and wrote nasty memos about him to the staff.

Dr. Germano, who now works as a research professor at New York University, was apparently required to write a follow up report in which he noted: “I am told Eva Moskowitz made disparaging comments about me in reaction to the report…I was told to write a follow-up report that would essentially downplay my findings and told by [recently departed Success vice president] Keri Hoyt not to use the word ‘cheating’ in any future reports. Finally, I was told that I was banned from visiting schools for the remaining 4 weeks of the school year, and that I could only visit schools next year if accompanied by ‘a chaperone.’”  He also noted in that follow up, “Comments about a culture of fear at Success have been a recurring theme in my interviews.” Spokesperson Stefan Friedman told Politico: “As to the allegations raised in the title of Mr. Germano’s memo, though he interviewed just 13 teachers out of 1,400 to justify that title, we conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to substantiate his speculation…Any suggestion that we utilized these methods — or anything untoward — on state standardized exams is categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact.”

Dr. Germano’s proposed research was submitted to Success in May of 2015.  By August, he was dismissed after having been forbidden to visit schools.  With such a severe reaction and so quick a dismissal, Mr. Friedman’s assertion that Success Academy “conducted a thorough investigation” is plainly laughable.  So much for asking questions.

Dr. Germano’s questions actually come as no surprise to those who have watched Success Academy closely, nor does his prompt dismissal after actually doing the job for which he was supposedly hired.  The pressure cooker atmosphere and singular focus on standardized test results has been evident at the rapidly growing network since at least 2010, when Success Academy’s Paul Fucaloro openly told New York Magazine that his program turned their students “into little test taking machines,” and he actually said, “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” blaming bad parenting for most special needs students.  In the same article, other sources says that students who do not bend to the Success Academy method were counseled out and that founder Eva Moskowitz told the staff that “Success Academy is not a social service agency.”

A year later, The New York Times ran a story on the subtle and direct ways that the network tries to rid itself of students who do not quickly and completely comply.  The story described the experiences of Kevin Sprowal who, mere weeks into his Kindergarten year, was throwing up most mornings before school because of the constant and increasing punishments.  Recently, a series of news stories have placed further emphasis on the high pressure environment in the network.  In April of 2015, Kate Taylor ran a story in The New York Times highlighting both the very high test score results and the extreme pressure environment within Success Academy – including an incentive system for students that include publicly shaming students with low test scores.  On October 12th, veteran education reporter John Merrow did an extended segment on the PBS Newshour on the use of out of school suspensions at Success Academy – for children as young as Kindergarten:

Eva Moskowitz retaliated by lobbing a lengthy complaint against Mr. Merrow at PBS and by publishing a response that included federally protected information identifying the disciplinary record of a former Success Academy student who appeared on camera.  This earned her a cease and desist order and a formal complaint filed with the Federal Department of Education.

Before October was over, The New York Times ran another story on Success Academy – this time, a “got to go list” was leaked from Success Academy in Fort Green, Brooklyn.  In addition to the shocking targeting of specific students, other sources confirmed practices across the network such as not sending automatic re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and a network attorney calling one student leaving “a big win for us”.  Ms. Moskowitz responded with a press conference calling the “got to go list” an aberration – and with an email to staff declaring the bad press the result of media “conspiracy theories.”  Ms. Moskowitz then took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal in an editorial piece claiming that the only real “secret” to Success Academy is imitating the teaching of Paul Fucaloro:

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

Ms. Moskowitz wanted her readers to infer that all Success Academy has done is simply scale up the teaching methods of one man into a system of nearly 3 dozen schools and roughly 10,000 students.

But if that is the case, the public had to wonder just what kind of person Ms. Moskowitz chose to clone across her entire staff when a video of one of the network’s “exemplar teachers” surfaced.  In the video, a calm and passive Success Academy student has trouble following her teacher’s instructions and is treated to having her work paper ripped in half in front of her classmates, being sent to the “calm down chair,” and berate in angry tones.  The video was not an accident: the assistant teacher was specifically keeping her cell phone ready in order to catch an example of just that kind of behavior because she had seen it so often.  In what is now her typical fashion, Eva Moskowitz lashed out at the press for the story, calling her critics haters and bullies.

This is a long record of employing not merely high standards, but also of employing extreme high pressure and of tolerating plainly unethical practices from teachers and administrators so long as the bottom line – very high standardized test scores – remains intact.  Dr. Germano’s questions were entirely appropriate as the beginning of a research program within Success Academy precisely because the bottom line at the network is entirely tangled up with test scores first and the means to get those scores second. If it means suspending Kindergarten children repeatedly until the submit to total control of their behavior, so be it.  If it means conspiring to pressure certain families to leave the school, so be it.  If it means humiliating a little girl in front of her peers so she learns that mistakes are never tolerated, so be it.  Dr. Germano’s original proposal stated the central problem at Success Academy perfectly: “There are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”

Incentives matter. And organizational values are completely intertwined with what is measured and rewarded.  The is well known in the business world, even though companies from Enron to General Motors do not always learn from it.  The lesson from Success Academy is that when a school is entirely obsessed with high standardized test scores and when it is removed from nearly every system of public accountability available, it can get those test scores – but at an extremely high cost to anyone who does not serve that end.  Perhaps overt, organized, cheating is not a problem at Success Academy (yet), but the organizational incentives for it exist from the very top all the way down to their youngest students.

Dr. Germano tried to warn them, but nobody at Success Academy seems capable of listening.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Media, Social Justice, Success Academy

The Long Arm of the PARCC?

Dr. Celia Oyler is a professor of education at Teachers College.  Recently, a teacher contacted her with an intelligent and cogent critique of the recent PARCC examination, including a few selections of content from the test itself.  Dr. Oyler published this on her blog as the critique demonstrated very deep flaws within the test, specifically that PARCC is developmentally inappropriate, requiring students to read far above grade level, and that PARCC is dubiously aligned with the Common Core State Standards it allegedly assesses, requiring students to demonstrate skills not evident in the CCSS standards for their grade levels.  As a critique, the teacher’s observations, backed with selected material from the exam, was pointed and a very valuable contribution to the discourse on the examinations.  Because of the highly secretive nature of the exams and because of the extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements those who have access to it have to sign, it has been difficult to find critiques that are actually rooted in what the exams themselves require.

So, of course, that could not stand.

Within a week, Dr. Oyler was contacted by the CEO of PARCC, Laura Slover, with official “requests” that she remove “all of the material reproduced from the PARCC assessments.”  The letter claimed ownership of all “intellectual property” for PARCC, Inc., claimed that Dr. Oyler’s blog “infringed” on PARCC’s copyright, “amplified” the breach of confidentiality the teacher committed by revealing the content to anyone, and that as an “infringer” Dr. Oyler could “be held personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.” Ms. Slover demanded that the material be taken down within 24 hours and asked Dr. Oyler to reveal the name of the teacher who contacted her with the material.  In fact, she openly stated that PARCC’s willingness to “waive claims” against Dr. Oyler hinged not only on removal of the material from her blog, but also upon her cooperation in identifying the teacher — within 24 hours.

Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University received a similar letter from Ms. Slover because of her blog post linking to Dr. Oyler’s, and Dr. Ravitch as well as a number of other Twitter users had tweets linking to Dr. Oyler’s post removed from the micro-blogging platform.

iN THE NAME OF PARCC

PARRC, Inc.’s heavy handed tactics lead me to a number of observations:

First: We should, once and for all, dispense with the tomfoolery from Common Core and testing proponents that the PARCC, SBAC, and other Common Core aligned exams are valuable for individual students and their families.  For some time now, they have gone on about an alleged “honesty gap” in education where students and families were told by the previous state assessments that they were doing well in school while proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress “proved” they were actually floundering.  According to this line of thought, it is a good thing that many more students struggle to meet proficiency levels on the new exams because it is a hard “truth” that families must know.

For multiple reasons (kindly demonstrated by Jersey Jazzman both here and here), this is a load of hooey.  But it is even a bigger load of hooey that these tests demonstrate this new “reality” in any meaningful way for individual students and their families, and PARCC’s heavy handed response to test security breaches pretty well proves it.  Ms. Slover told Dr. Oyler that she could happily “view over 800 released questions from the spring 2015 tests that show the breadth and depth of the kinds of questions on the PARCC assessments.” That’s all nice, but a selection of hand curated items from the exams is not remotely the same as being able to view, and critique, the exam itself.  Without releasing the entire exam, as it is presented to students who take it, there is no real ability for parents or teachers or researchers to critically examine it to determine if it is the kind of assessment PARCC claims it to be.

Even more to the point, without returning the entire exam to both teachers and students, the claim that we are “no longer lying” to people about their education is just air. When my children take an assessment made by their teachers at school, we get to see what items they got correct and what items they got wrong.  We can inquire with their teachers about what the assessment says about their strengths and about their weaknesses.  We can find out what is going on in the school to help support our children in their learning, and we can ask what we can do at home to help support their teachers.  We can plan based on the assessment with the guidance of the professional teachers who know our children in context.

PARCC does no such thing.  Far from their claim to Dr. Oyler that “transparency is one of the hallmarks of PARCC,” the hallmark of PARCC is to label students on their proficiency scale and to provide a simple statistical comparison of students to other students.  Knowing that your child scored below, near, at, or above school, district, state, and national averages may be slightly more informative than previous assessments, but it doesn’t tell anyone jack frat about a single student’s strengths, challenges, or what can be done to better support that child.  Of course, there are many standardized exams that sort and rank students, especially college and graduate/professional school admissions examinations, but nobody pretends that those exams are meant to help individual students get a better education or to provide teachers and schools with actionable information on how to better serve students.

Those promises were made for PARCC.  They are unadulterated bull plop, and will remain so as long as the current reporting system remains in place where nobody knows a darn thing about how they actually did.

Second: I remain utterly mystified why PARCC retains such a copyright on a deployed exam in the first place.  The two testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC, were awarded $330 million in grants from the federal Department of Education to develop the assessments.  At the time, PARCC was comprised of 26 states – this year, they are down to 8 “fully participating” states.  The grant announcement in 2010 promised that PARCC would “replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day, and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.”  What we’ve gotten are – wait for it – annual end of year examinations and a set of “instructional tools” that teachers can use “at their discretion” during the school year.  States left for a variety of reasons, but the projected ongoing costs certainly played a role.  The consortium, however, still has expensive contracts with various states — New Jersey’s four year contract with PARCC could top $100 million.  Pearson, by the way, was the only bidder for the contract to write the exam.

PARCC, Inc has taken in a lot of public money to develop and produce the tests.  So one has to wonder why they get to maintain so much control of the test built for public use and on the public dime?  An architecture firm that is contracted to design a new city hall may be able to copyright the design, but they cannot tell the town who can enter the building or block off entire wings from the public.  When Northrop Grumman designed and delivered the B2 stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, they certainly filed patents on the technology, but they did not tell the Air Force who can see the finished product and when it could be used.  They built it with public money, and then they had to let the government decide how to use it and who could know anything about it – they relinquished control.

But not PARCC, Inc which goes so far as to continuously monitor social media to detect students and others who know test content divulging any of it in public.  While it is certainly fair for the testing consortium to keep strict control on the test as it is under development and in current use, the refusal to generally distribute the test after it is done using the copyright system is noxious and thoroughly antithetical to the stated purposes of the exam, undermining any reason for the public and for educators to have faith in it as anything other than a means of sorting and ranking children and schools without real transparency. We’ve paid for PARCC’s development as a nation. The various states pay for PARCC to distribute and to deploy the exam in their states and to score them.  But not one person has a right to see the entire exam, and not one parent or teacher has the right to see how particular students did on the exam and to learn from it.  And Ms. Slover revealed PARCC’s real reason in her letter to Dr. Oyler when she threatened to hold her “personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.”

In other words: money.  PARCC wants to recycle as much as the exam as is practical, and holding the copyright threats over those who want to study and discuss the exams is the best way of doing that.

So PARCC may hold a legal copyright – but the fact that they were allowed to do so in their contracts is absurd.

Third: Even if PARCC’s copyright is legally valid, is Ms. Slover’s application of that copyright – threatening bloggers and having content removed from social media – valid?  Copyright does not provide a complete protection from revealing material that is under copyright, and Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Professor at California State University at Sacramento, makes a pointed observation that “fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material for a variety of purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  The fair use doctrine is not absolute and requires a careful balancing analysis in each and every case.  For example, “fair use” would not allow someone to set up a College and Career Readiness Assessment Partnership (or, CCRAP, if you will) and then just distribute the entire test under the guise of an “educational” purpose.

However, Dr. Oyler’s post was clearly a critique and designed to inform the public about the nature of the PARCC examinations.  While fair use under that category would have to be argued by people with expertise, it is hard to imagine why such an argument cannot be made.  Diane Ravitch reports that a board member of the Network for Public Education is an attorney with significant experience in intellectual property law, and his opinion was that PARCC’s claim has little merit.  Not only were most of the materials considered objectionable descriptions rather than excerpts, but also the question of fair use for actual quotations has to be considered given the purpose of of the blog.

Another potential fair use exception should be considered as well: news reporting.  While the law on this is a complex and shifting landscape, it is true that there have been court rulings that grant bloggers the status of journalists.  Critically examining the PARCC tests could not be more in the public interest regardless of the organization’s desire to wield copyright to prevent that examination from happening.  100s of millions of dollars of federal money was spent developing them.  States are contracted to spend 100s of million of dollars more using them.  While the secrecy about the tests make them utterly useless in helping teachers and schools design better instruction for students individually and collectively, the exams are being used for very high stakes purposes.  Annual testing is a requirement under federal law, including the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act that passed last year as the successor to No Child Left Behind.  While states and districts have more flexibility in the use of testing under the new law, there is no indication that states are rushing to remove growth measures based on standardized tests from teacher evaluations, so PARCC still has an impact on teachers’ careers.  Students and schools are still being ranked based largely on standardized test data, and under agreements with the Obama administration that are still in effect, states are obligated to identify their lowest performing schools using standardized test data.  What exactly will come when the new law is in full effect is unknown,  but there is no reason to believe that annual tests will cease to play high stakes roles in how students are sorted, how teachers are evaluated, and how schools and districts are ranked.

I find it very hard to entertain the notion that PARCC Inc’s interest in being able to continually dip into a pool of unreleased test items outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the content and the quality of tests we’ve already spent huge sums of money on and which are and will continue to be used for high stakes purposes.  PARCC needs to put down the copyright club and legitimately engage the public whose tax dollars fund its entire existence.

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Filed under Common Core, Data, ESSA, NCLB, PARCC, Pearson, Privacy, Testing, VAMs

New York Evaluations Lose in Court

Sheri Lederman is an experienced teacher in the Long Island district of Great Neck.  This means that she, like every other teacher in the Empire State, has been subjected to an ongoing experiment of teacher evaluation roulette with increasing focus on the “value added” of individual teachers calculated using student standardized test scores plugged into complex statistical formulas.  The method, called “Value Added Modeling,” is meant to account for the various factors that might impact a student’s score on a standardized test, isolate the teacher’s input on the student’s growth during one year of instruction, and determine whether or not the student learned as much as similarly situated students.  The difference between what the VAM predicts and how the student does – for either better or worse – is used to determine whether or not an individual teacher is effective.  VAMs promise to remove some of the subjectivity of teacher evaluation by relying solely upon tests that large numbers of students take and by calculating how well a teacher’s students did all things considered – literally.  VAM formulas claim to account for differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and home life and only hold teachers accountable for students’ predicted performance.

Sounds great.  Trouble is that they don’t work.

The research base on VAMs continues to grow, but the evidence against them was strong enough that the American Statistical Association strongly cautioned against their use in individual and high stakes teacher evaluation in 2014.  So, of course, New York took its already VAM heavy evaluation system and doubled down hard on the standardized testing component because Governor Andrew Cuomo decided that the evaluations were finding too many teachers competent.  The previous system was, interestingly enough, the one that Ms. Lederman ran afoul of.  According to this New York Times article, Ms. Lederman’s  students performed very slightly lower on the English exam in the 2013-2014 school year than in the previous year, which was apparently enough to cause her test based effectiveness rating to plummet from 14 out of 20 points to 1 out of 20 points.  While her overall evaluation was still positive, the VAM based portion of her evaluation still labeled Ms. Lederman as ineffective.

So she sued.  In the court filing against then New York State Commissioner (and now U.S. Secretary of Education) John King, her argument was that the growth model used in New York “actually punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable.”  In fact, we’ve seen this before when the growth model used by New York City determined that the absolute worst 8th grade math teacher in the entire city was a teacher at a citywide gifted and talented program whose students performed exceptionally on the statewide Regents Integrated Algebra Exam, a test mostly taken by tenth graders, but who did not perform as well as “predicted” on the state 8th grade mathematics test.  It is important to remember that VAMs promise to explain the differences among student test scores by isolating the teacher’s effect on learning, but in order to do this, they have to mathematically peel away everything else.  However, according to the American Statistical Association statement, most research suggests that teacher input counts for only 1-14% of the variation among student scores, so the VAMs have to literally carve away over 85% of the influences on how students do on standardized tests to work.  No wonder, then, that the Lederman V. King filing called the models a “statistical black box” given that this is an example from New York City’s effort earlier in the decade:

NYC VAM

Not only are these models difficult to impossible for teachers and most administrators to understand, they simply do not perform as advertised.  Schochet and Chiang, in a 2010 report for Mathematica, found that in trying to classify teachers via growth models, error rates as high as 26% were possible when using three years of data, meaning one in four teachers could easily be misclassified in any given evaluation even if the evaluation used multiple years of data.   Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers wanted to test the often floated talking point that some teachers are “irreplaceable” because they demonstrate a very high value added using student test scores.  What he found, using New York City data, was an unstable mess where teachers were much more likely to ping around from the top 20% to below that and back up again over a five year stretch.  So as a tool for providing evaluators with clear and helpful information on teachers’ effectiveness, it would perhaps be better to represent that VAM formula like this:

NYC VAMreal

NYC VAMfake

The judge in Ms. Lederman’s case ruled this week, and, as the linked news articles stated, he vacated her evaluation, saying that it had been “arbitrary and capricious.”  The judge’s ruling is, by necessity, limited in scope because the evaluation system that gave Ms. Lederman her low value added rating no longer exists, having been replaced by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 push to tie HALF of teacher evaluations to test scores and then by the New York State Education Department’s somewhat frenzied efforts to implement that which has resulted in a temporary bar on using the state tests for those evaluations.  The ruling is still significant because the judge recognized the deep, and likely unsolvable, problems with the VAM system used in the Lederman case.  According to Dr. Audrey Armein-Beardsley, the judge acknowledged:

(1) the convincing and detailed evidence of VAM bias against teachers at both ends of the spectrum (e.g. those with high-performing students or those with low-performing students); (2) the disproportionate effect of petitioner’s small class size and relatively large percentage of high-performing students; (3) the functional inability of high-performing students to demonstrate growth akin to lower-performing students; (4) the wholly unexplained swing in petitioner’s growth score from 14 [i.e., her growth score the year prior] to 1, despite the presence of statistically similar scoring students in her respective classes; and, most tellingly, (5) the strict imposition of rating constraints in the form of a “bell curve” that places teachers in four categories via pre-determined percentages regardless of whether the performance of students dramatically rose or dramatically fell from the previous year.”

Equally important as the court’s recognition of arguments against value-added models in teacher evaluation, is the ground that was broken with the ruling.  Ms. Lederman’s attorney (and husband), Bruce Lederman, sent out a message reported by New York City education activist Leonie Haimson which said, in part, ” …To my knowledge, this is the first time a judge has set aside an individual teacher’s VAM rating based upon a presentation like we made.”  The significance of this cannot be overstated.  For years now, teachers have been on the defensive and largely powerless, subjected to poorly thought out policies which, nevertheless, had force of policy and law on their side.  Lederman v. King begins the process of flipping that script, giving New York teachers an effective argument to make on their behalf and challenging policy makers to find some means of defending their desire to use evaluation tools that are “capricious and arbitrary.” While this case will not overturn whatever system NYSED thinks up next, it should force Albany to think really long and hard about how many times they want to defend themselves in court from wave after wave of teachers challenging their test-based ratings.

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Filed under Data, John King, teaching, Testing, VAMs